SFU gender and health equity researchers discuss sex work inequities during COVID-19

Findings show that sex workers are disproportionately affected due to criminalization

PHOTO: Mathilde Langevin / Unsplash

by Dev Petrovic, Staff Writer

SFU assistant professor in the faculty of health sciences, Shira Goldenberg and her research assistant, Jennie Pearson, spoke with The Peak about some of the issues facing sex workers due to COVID-19. This includes sex work criminalization, inaccessibility to government supports, and negative impacts on living stability. 

Their research is derived from “An Evaluation of Sex Workers Health Access (AESHA),” a community-based research project that works with cohorts of cis and trans-women sex workers across various work environments in Metro Vancouver. Goldenberg explained that they have been working with the women for about 10 years and have continued to follow-up with them throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, gathering preliminary findings for the research from them. 

Under current laws, many aspects of sex work are criminalized, leaving sex workers to navigate the health and safety inequities caused by stigma, policing, and different types of surveillance. 

Goldenberg explained that due to COVID-19, there is higher surveillance in the public health sphere. She added that “it has amplified these inequities — for not only sex workers — but other kinds of precarious workers too.” Goldenberg noted that in findings from around 200 workers, a third of workers had reported a complete loss of employment and a quarter had reported a reduction of work. Overall, it “resulted in a near-total loss of income for many.”

“One thing [sex workers] are also experiencing are safety concerns related to their work, including enhanced security, police surveillance, and kind of all under the guise of COVID-19 related measures,” reported Goldenberg, elaborating that there is also a significant lack of access to personal protective equipment.

Pearson added that sex workers in formalized venues have had difficulty retaining business during COVID-19 and that they “have been treated a little more harshly than other work industries in terms of how they are being policed and surveyed during the pandemic.” She explained that that the criminalization of sex work “has meant that sex work venues are excluded from work place safety standards, so sex workers haven’t had much official guidance in how to do their work safely during COVID-19 times.”

Goldenberg expressed that the impacts of COVID-19 have been different for various sex workers. For those “who are in informal spaces, there’s an intersection between housing policy and safer sex workspaces right now. So, you have policies that limit how many people can be in the building,” she said. “That’s their workplace, and that’s their income, and that’s all been taken away, that can be hugely problematic.”

Sex workers also continue to face barriers in accessing the technology to work online. Additional factors include a lack of private space, consistent internet access, and the criminalization of online advertising of sex work — including censorship policies. “The way that sex workers are still being removed from online platforms continues to hinder this potential avenue for sex workers to diversify their income [and] reach out to clients from a safer distance,” reported Pearson.

Pearson added that “folks have also experienced extreme [sic] negative changes to their food security, so access to essential services have suffered due to loss of income and changes to their housing environment and support services.” 

In their preliminary findings, Pearson shared that they found a majority of workers have not accessed or successfully received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Others have been cut off from CERB or are discouraged from applying due to the stigma of their occupation and potential repercussions, such as when filing taxes. This has resulted in many sex workers working in unsafe conditions or without income. 

“Our major policy recommendation always comes down to decriminalizing all aspects of sex work,” said Pearson. “We understand that this is a longer-term goal, so right now in the face of a pandemic, it’s important that sex workers have access to emergency supports and financial supports that are offered by the government,” Pearson explained. 

“It would be nice to see the government scale up available resources so that community groups, who are often best positioned to work in safe, non-stigmatizing, and non-threatening ways with the community — could distribute that safely without all the formalized requirements of the government,” explained Goldenberg. 

“We added a new piece to the study during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Goldenberg reported. “These preliminary findings suggest that workers are definitely experiencing serious concerns over reduced food insecurity, mental health, access to safe and supportive workspaces, and inequitable access to emergency supports, like CERB.” 

Some organizations that can benefit from external support, such as volunteers and donations, include PACE Society, WISH Drop-in Centre, SWAN, SWAV, and Him and Hustle